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The Covid Shock Jolts Digital Learning to Life

As Covid-19 spread and global society retreated to the safety of homes, more than 1.4 billion students worldwide suddenly found themselves booted out of the classroom. That began a scramble to create or adopt a makeshift curriculum that could be delivered online. 

The range of responses is vast. Some schools (mostly in wealthier regions) were way better prepared than others. The digitally-savvy are refining Zoom classroom etiquette. Others are still more or less figuring out how to drop off packages of ditto sheets. 

For the online learning community, the virus has accelerated things everybody hoped would have happened BC (before Corona). Now, Michael Moe, the CEO of GSV Capital, a Silicon Valley investment firm with an emphasis on transforming education, said last week that “We’ve all been tossed into the deep end of the pool.” He was speaking at a virtual conference for educators and investors hosted by his firm called The Dawn of the Age of Digital Learning.  Moe was emphatic that the post-COVID educational landscape will look completely different. Some will sink, others may swim but barely make it, others will flourish. 

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste

I was one of more than 2,000 participants who Zoomed in for the two-hour online event. It featured participants including well-known names in online learning: Coursera, Khan Academy, Duolingo, and ClassDojo, to name a few. All those companies had one thing in common: overnight astronomical growth and a massive sense of urgency to meet sudden demand for online course content and distribution. Each has also stepped up to the Covid challenge by opening up many resources for free.

Coursera, founded by Stanford professors in 2012 to deliver college-level online courses, had earlier created Coursera for Campus to help institutions transition to online learning. In February it served 51 colleges, according to CEO Jeff Maggioncalda. By March, as physical schools closed their doors, that number soared to over 2,100. The company moved swiftly to grant free access to its course catalog for all universities affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Joy Chen, U.S. Chief Investment Officer at TAL Education Group, a Chinese education company with both physical and virtual curriculum, reported that on Jan 24th (one day after the Chinese government instituted its mandatory lockdown in Wuhan) the company made a decision to go entirely online. Shortly after that, the Chinese Ministry of Education opened an online learning platform to facilitate home study for K-12 students. Currently, that platform can handle 50 million students simultaneously. TAL is one of many companies supplying content. (A good example of the kind of public/private partnership the US needs more of.)

Duolingo, which offers personalized curriculum for learning foreign languages, saw traffic double in China just after the Chinese New Year. But CEO and Co-founder Luis Von Ahn says it wasn’t until Italy and South Korea showed spikes in usage that the company realized the pandemic meant Duolingo had to ramp up its business dramatically. “Now we see spikes in our growth about 3 to 5 days after a country starts their social distancing measures. In the U.S. there’s been a 90% increase in new users in March.”

So online education may be a relatively bright spot amidst economic disaster, but the transition to online learning leaves more unanswered questions than the bubble sheet on my long-ago Math SAT test.

Overall, colleges are taking advantage better than K-12. In the US, as of 2019, approximately 30% of college undergraduates had experienced some form of online class, though surveys find most would still rather take them in person. But what would higher education look like if we find out we can get by, maybe even flourish, without dorm rooms, campus quads and hundreds of thousands of dollars of personal debt? Which colleges have the best chance of coming out of that intact? Elite institutions? Probably. Community and state colleges? Yes, if they can pivot to offer more personalized education that dovetails with their local business community’s needs and expectations. That probably leaves, in the U.S., more than half of colleges that I suspect will be eventually closing their doors.

K-12 education is a patchwork-quilted mess at the moment. Some of the more helpful online providers like Khan Academy and Common Sense Media are actually giving parents, teachers and students a schedule for getting through the day, along with a content curriculum. Parents I know tell me there’s no shortage of resource materials, but that they much appreciate a plan. Teachers who enjoy teaching may, however, feel like they’re abdicating their role to the machine. K-12 schools have had ample time in recent decades to begin experimenting with online learning, but the appetite, and in many cases the budget and leadership, has been absent.

As a post-summit sanity check, I spoke with John Katzman, CEO of Noodle Partners, an online program manager. He summed up by saying that online learning had already been happening, but that “Covid was simply an accelerant”. Online tools won’t solve every learning issue, but they’ve suddenly been tapped, out of necessity.

Students in kindergarten through graduate school will be online, wherever possible, for at least the next semester. So now is the time to focus on some burning questions like equality and inclusivity of access, along with tools for assessment and personalization. We didn’t start this fire, goes the metaphor, but the online education community wants to make sure it doesn’t flame out once Covid is gone. 

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